Special Report: Return to Hanoi

Updated: 02/24/2014 11:02 PM
Created: 02/24/2014 4:15 PM

This story started almost 50 years ago. Lt. Commander David Wheat, from Duluth, was on a mission in Vietnam. It was 1965. He and the pilot in the aircraft were shot down. Wheat, only 25 years old at the time, was captured. His fellow Navy comrade, has never been found.

Wheat then spent 7 years and 4 months as a prisoner of war. When he was freed, he did return home to Duluth. He built a life in the military, married, and had a family.

"I never thought I'd want to go back," he told us from his Duluth home. "But as time went on, it became more and more, yes."

The opportunity to go back came in the form of a chance encounter. Thai Dang and his wife Diamond Tran sponsored a dinner for Vietnam veterans, back on Memorial Day Weekend. They live in California now. Thai has a connection to Duluth. He escaped Vietnam in the late 1970s, and was sponsored by someone here in Duluth. He and Diamond said they are eternally grateful for the Americans' role in the Vietnam War. And the dinner was one way to say thank you. 

Wheat was at a reunion for POWs, so he wasn't there. But he was able to meet the couple, at a taping of Brad Bennett's radio show. Bennett is also a Vietnam veteran.

The couple offered Wheat and his wife a free trip back to Vietnam. After some thinking, the Wheats said yes. So they and Brad and Cathy Bennett left for Hanoi in mid-November.

When they arrived in Hanoi, even the littlest special touches were taken care of by their hosts. "The guide was holding a little sign that said, Welcome David Wheat," chuckled Wheat. 

"I was excited to be in Hanoi. It was kind of unbelievable, actually, because we were in the same airport that I left from."

Their very first stop, after the hotel, was one of the prisons Wheat spent time in. It was nicknamed "The Hanoi Hilton" by the American men.

"I wasn't nervous or anything. I didn't feel any strange feelings. It was interesting," Wheat said. 

A young guide showed them around. But Wheat had to correct him on a few things. 

"I was there, I lived it. I knew the treatment that went on there," Wheat said. The guide glossed over some of the truth of the prison conditions, saying, there are two sides to every store.

Wheat's memory is impeccable. He pointed out in pictures where people's cells were. Like it was just yesterday.

Also, Wheat said some of the exhibits in the museum weren't accurate either. "They had a twin bed there (at the museum), but there were no beds. We had a concrete slab," he remembered.

Some people at the tourist attraction overheard that Wheat was a former P.O.W., and kind of tagged along with their little group.

After a few hours, they went back to the hotel. The rest of the trip they did some sight-seeing, including some areas that were significant to Wheat and the Bennetts from the war.

Thai and Diamond researched the bridge that was Wheat's final target, and took them back there.

Wheat said he was glad he went. And he'd even go back again. 

"It would be nice someday if our kids and grandkids could see this, and see what grandpa went through," he added.

He and his wife said it was a great opportunity.

He's still humble about the whole story. But it is such an amazing story, of service and sacrifice, and a trip worth taking.

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